Car broke down. Too much dust in the engine, I dunno. Wheels kept kicking up land all the way through California & eventually the car sputtered and died. No cell service. I walked in circles for what felt like an hour before I saw another car down the road. I waved them down & they stopped, rolling down the window. An older white man, maybe 50s. Asked for the nearest mechanic and if he could give me a ride.
“Ain’t one for miles,” he said, “and I ain’t driving that direction.” The sky was darkening. Okay, then the nearest town? I asked. His face darkened as much. “Los Suelos, but I ain’t taking you there. No way.” I begged him, please, I’ve been driving for almost 3 days straight, I just need somewhere to lay my head down and rest. He narrowed his eyes. “You’re not from around here, are you?” His gaze raked me clean, flesh stripped from bone. I pulled my cap lower over my eyes—very inconspicuous, Terrence. “Just passing through,” is what I told him. I dunno, maybe I looked pathetic, dog-tired, or simply contemptible, b/c he sighed, reached over, and pushed open the passenger seat door for me.
As he drove, he kept asking me questions—what I was doing out here all by myself, where was I going. Thought I was still in college & I didn’t correct him. Yeah, I do astrophysics, the science of giants moving across the sky, I told him, even tho that’s an old dream, a very old dream. He wasn’t sold on anything I said, but it didn’t matter. “We’re here,” he suddenly announced. Here? I looked around, & around was some ramshackle town that god himself had forgotten. You know, the type of place that feels, even when inhabited by humans, like a watering hole for ghosts. “Thanks,” I told the driver, & he sped off. Never got his name.
Lucky for me: there’s a tiny motel on the edge of town. Giant metal tomato out front, for some reason. I’m the only visitor tonight. Room smells stale and sheets look suspicious. Whatever. I can handle all that, but I plugged my phone into the wall and turns out there’s no cell service anywhere in this place. Motel has no wifi, either. Truly some middle-of-nowhere shit. Cross that off my bucket list. But like every motel there’s a pen & pad on the bedside table, and I don’t know what it was, maybe the exhaustion from the road, maybe everything that’s happened in the past few weeks, but I sat down and started writing. It’s like this blank page was calling. Is that how writers feel? I’m writing and the words keep going. God, I’m tired. I can’t wait to get back on the road & drive.
Fuck, I should’ve listened to the guy who drove me here. It’s impossible to get out. There’s no cell service, no internet, hell, no telephones. No one has any useful info. It’s like I’m stuck in the pocket dimension of some bad sci-fi show. While I was out searching for a mechanic, anyone who knew anything about cars, some locals started chatting me up and roped me into a night of drinking. They took me to this dive bar and just started pouring me drinks like they’d always known me. Said they’re part of some special church here. Crazy motherfuckers. Couldn’t even figure out half of what they were telling me, why did I stay the whole night? Just smiled & nodded. I must’ve been really lonely.
Don’t remember how I got back to the motel; woke up with a blaring hangover, couldn’t even see straight. I was still blinking off the remnants of last night’s dream, where I sat in the center of the earth, watching its iron core spin. Reminded me of being trapped at the bottom of a jar—that old folktale A-gong used to tell me. How did it go again? Anyway, tonight I’m gonna try to find some more info & go to bed early. I hope this place is as remote as it seems. Maybe they won’t be able to find me.
God, my head hurts. How have I already been here a week? Time slips like water here. My brain’s messed up. Keep having visions: tiny tyke me, pointing up at the stars, naming every constellation, A-gong grinning down at me with pride. I’ll go far, I promise him. And when I snap out of it, it’s like I’m moving thru mud. I spend my days looking for telephone books, maps, anything that’ll help, & then inevitably the church people will find me, take me drinking, & I’ll lose entire nights to my dreams.
You know, last night I was almost certain that A-gong was standing over me while I laid in bed. He’s already dead, so I knew it was a dream. But the motel room around me was so realistic that it felt like I was dreaming with my eyes open. He never said anything, just stared with two black, empty eyes. If he was alive, he wouldn’t like me. He never wanted a grandson after all.
I ran out of all my money already. I’ve gotta get a goddamn job.
Some of the church folks got me a gig at the slaughterhouse, called Schaefer Meats. Looks like they aren’t so bad, huh. I’m not a sick fuck so I’m not excited about the prospect of killing cows or anything, but money’s money.
Paperwork was simple & quick. Hiring manager barely asked any questions. “As long as you’re ready to work,” he said, “that’s all we’re looking for. Speak English?” He said it so casually, that was the worst kind of knife. I’m speaking it to you right now, I smart-mouthed back. “Good,” he said, I guess missing the sarcasm. “Driver’s license?” And now my blood ran cold. I pulled it from my wallet and slid over the table. I’m gonna be found out, my heart kept thumping, I’m gonna be found out, I’m gonna be found.
He looked for a long while at my ID & then back at me. “Terrence Chen?”
Yes, I said. Trying to sound as me as possible, yes, that is me, the man known as Terrence Chen, who has existed for all of his 28 years on earth, from the first day out of the womb up until the day we sink beneath the dirt. Except the womb was not my mother’s, but my own. Like in sci-fi: the mother and the son are the same person. The mother gave birth to himself, the mother cracked open her skull and out of her cranial pussy burst the fully-formed body of a man. And now I was trying to prove this was true with a fake ID.
I was boiling in the depths of hell, trapped at the bottom of a jar with the creepy-crawlies all over me, sweat pouring out of my skin—but the guy didn’t even notice. He slid the ID back to me and smiled. “Welcome to the Schaefer Meats team, Terrence. Tomorrow’s your first day, so let’s go and get you acquainted with the rest of the guys, huh?”
He led me to the breakroom. Whatever conversation going on instantly died, the air stilled & cleared, leaving 20 or 30 pairs of eyes on me. Trying to assess me. See what I was worth. A lot of different skin tones in the room, black and brown and white, but no other Asian guys around but me. Looks like I was the first one.
The hiring manager broke the silence. “Everyone, this here’s Terrence. Terrence, everyone. He’s starting with us tomorrow, so let’s show him the Schaefer Meats hospitality, yeah?” No one seemed particularly moved to show me any hospitality, save for one of them who stepped forward with an outstretched hand. “Hey, I’m Nate,” he introduced himself. “I’ll be your supervisor on the floor.” He seemed friendly enough, so I shook his hand. The other guys still said nothing. Fine by me.
“Well, that should be it for now,” the hiring manager said, turning back to me. “Any questions?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Where’s the bathroom?”
He gave me the directions & I went by myself. There was a women’s bathroom, of course, but it looked small from the outside. The men’s bathroom, by comparison, was vast—a seemingly endless line of grimy urinals against one wall, several stalls against the other. Bustling with bodies. The men chatted to each other while peeing, exposing themselves to each other like it was nothing. No privacy, anywhere. I panicked and ducked into a stall. How long could I do this for? It was my first time in a men’s bathroom, it always felt forbidden & unreachable, and now that I was actually here, I was terrified.
How long before they find me out? How long until I expose everything?
It’s nasty work, this. Of course it is, Terrence, what did you expect—but now I know why the cows are “special.” Nate got me set up with the bolt gun. A captive-bolt pistol, he called it. “Nice and easy,” he said. “You wanna send them off quick and painless.” I held the gun steady in my hand until the first came down the line towards me. Thank you, it said politely before closing its eyes and resting its large forehead against the muzzle of the gun.
“What’s the matter?” Nate asked when I stood there doing nothing.
I looked at him. He was serious. “It just… it just…”
“Oh, that.” He shook his head. “Forgot you aren’t from around here.” He tried to smile kindly at me, but the light turned every curve of his lips sinister. “Don’t worry about it. Just makes our job easier, don’t you think?”
When I got back to the motel I threw up for the first time in years.
A-gong visited me again last night. He said, I see you’ve changed your skin. He held a knife against my throat and said, Last time I was here, you were loved, & small enough to fit in both my hands. But I see that my daughter, your mother, has performed the alchemical trick of turning blood into poison. Do you know how gu is made? A black magic practitioner will capture all manner of toxic creatures at the bottom of a jar: snakes, scorpions, toads, spiders, centipedes. In that concentrated hell they will fight to the death until one alone has absorbed all of his enemies’ venom, and their rage and resentment too; that tortured spirit is what we call gu. Gu is animated darkness, it cannot survive for long in the world of the living. And I am sorry to say, my grandson, but you have consumed too much of the venom. You have already destroyed too much.
The Belowdowners at work have taken a liking to me, I think, b/c I’m one of the few outsiders who’ll listen to them. Not that they won’t try to convert me. They talk a lot about some guy named Hibiscus, how he’s saved them from the rot of life, how I should attend one of his sermons soon. Sounds good and fine, I told them, but I’m a bit done with churches right now. I’ll still go drinking with them when the time comes, though.
Before my lunch ended, Nate cornered me in the breakroom. Seems like the church folks aren’t popular outside of their little group, and Nate thinks the Belowdowners are bad news. “You seem like a good kid. Don’t get too mixed up with them.”
I nodded and told him I’d be careful, but I wanted to say, I’m not sure if I’m the one you should be warning about danger, Nate. I’m already full of venom.
You think too much, someone on the killing floor told me. You identify too much with the cow. It’s considered a weakness. Might be written up in my performance report. But I can’t help it. When the animals look me in the eye, I feel like I can see the soul of them. The inner being. I got the hang of the bolt gun so they said, We’re gonna move you on up, & now I work on skinning because I have careful, small hands that can get around all the curves of a cow. Now I’m splitting the carcasses open, relieving them of their body, slipping the skin off. Like it’s a magic trick.
It’s so hot in there but I don’t want to pee at work, so I don’t drink water until I get back to the motel. It’s starting to mess with my head, I think. Dehydration makes me sway on the work floor and I’ve come close to slicing my own fingers off. If it’s the town, the cows, the thirst… I don’t want to fall asleep anymore. The slaughterhouse keeps coming back to revisit me at night.
Like this: I have a dream of my mother’s hands. She’s rubbing lotion on them the way she always does, in that dainty manner, dragging the sludge across her palms with her fingers. But now it’s not lotion, it’s blood, it’s cow blood and she’s reaching into the deep belly of it and pulling out its flesh until only the skin is left. Then she turns the bolt gun on me. Disappointment, she seethes. Cracks my skull open, drives the iron deep into my brain until it’s touched the very core of me. Thank you, thank you… The cows are marching down towards me in a single file. Bleeding, oozing, etc. All moaning, Thank you, thank you.
It’s 4am & I have to get up in 3 hrs for work tomorrow but I can’t fall asleep. I can’t remember anything these days. My memory’s like rotten meat. The blood on my hands, I don’t know if it’s from today, yesterday, or from 3 months ago. The only thing I can remember is that I have to leave. To where? From where did I come? Or maybe Los Suelos is the beginning and the end…
How did I even end up here? When I think back on the trajectory of my life, it doesn’t make any sense. When I was younger I wanted to be an astrophysicist, like my grandfather. We used to stay up together talking about the stars until my mom would come home & scold him for keeping me up too late. But then he died, & those dreams died with him. & then I had to run away from her… I loved my car. Driving was the only thing that made me feel free. So when I think of my car right now, out in the hills, abandoned, collecting dirt, rusting away, I get a little sad. In a thousand years the earth will swallow it whole, and it’ll just be another part of the landscape.
I’m trying to remember what the car used to look like…
I got sick. It was only a cold, but when I came into work coughing someone barred me from the door and told me I had to stay home until I got better. When I got back, I checked my stash of cash & only had $89.45, so there goes that. Can’t get to the doctor. Can’t leave town at all, even if I wanted to.
Woke up hot & screaming. I feel like a phantom visited me again in my sleep, but I can’t remember. I ended up on the floor, slept several good hours there. Being close to the ground helps.
The fever’s worse. Headache so bad it’s like a bolt driven into my brain. I went out for hot food and meds, stumbling the whole way. Whatever few people in the street cleared the way for me. I’m a walking disease, I’m spreading rot. I walked, heard several thumps behind me. It was oddly rhythmic. Like if I listened too long, I’d get hypnotized. I looked behind me.
Birds around me, falling out of trees, dead.
Mother poisoned me it wasn’t my fault
Where was I supposed to go
Los Suelos is the beginning and the end of everything
Not supposed to stay at the motel anymore. I took the pen & pad with me b/c somehow writing helps, writing helps to calm the fever. Like uncorking the firebomb and letting the heat out.
I started eating the dirt. It settles my stomach, and I’m so hungry for it that I suck all the dirt that gets stuck under my fingernails from digging. I remember the church people talking about it. But is it a cure? Closer to earth, closer to earth…
I’m walking into the hills right now. I feel sudden clarity, like the fever is fueling a singular purpose. I’m going back to my car where I’ll be free. Poor empty metal skeleton. I used to have dreams and aspirations, just like everyone else… Now all that’s left for me is rot.
The animals are here. The scorpions the snakes the toads the centipedes the spiders. They smell the venom in me and they follow, trailing my footfalls. The venom is named sorrow and I’m sorry, mom, I’m sorry, A-gong, I’m sorry every cow who pressed its furry pate against my palm and asked for death…
The earth is calling. When I reach the peak of the hills, I will get on my knees and start digging with my hands. The dirt will spill over my fingers like so much cool water. And when the hole I dig is just wide and just tall enough for my body to fit, I will lay down in it to watch the night sky pass. I still remember the name of every constellation, and I will speak Orion, Perseus, Cassiopeia, loud enough for my grandfather to hear.
Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.